The Home Office has published a summary of responses to its April 2009 consultation paper on ‘communications data’, i.e. information about a communication that does not include the content of the communication itself. At present, such data is owned by communications service providers and accessed by certain public authorities under disparate statutory powers for the purposes of combating, for example, fraud, terrorism and other serious crime. The government is considering an overhaul so as to bring all communication types (such as web chat) and all relevant service providers (some of whose contractual positions place them beyond the current statutory arrangements) within the system.
The attendant tension between individual liberty and public protection is reflected in the 221 responses to this consultation.
A substantial minority of respondents objected in principle to any ‘surveillance’ of communications. A majority (albeit a fairly narrow one) agreed that communications data served an important public purpose and that the government should therefore act to maintain the capability of public authorities to make use of this type of information.
As to what form this action should take, only one element of the government’s proposed approach was widely welcomed, namely its rejection of a central database for holding all data of this type. Reservations were otherwise expressed about technological feasibility, data security and the proportionality of public authorities’ use of communications data.
Nonetheless, such reservations were not deemed forceful or widespread enough to deter the government from its proposed course. A number of respondents’ suggestions have been rejected, including the specifying of categories of data which should not be retained, and the requirement for a magistrate’s authorisation before communications data can be accessed.
The government is also satisfied that the DPA 1998 and RIPA 2000 provide sufficient safeguards against abuse of such data. A legislative review is, however, proposed, to see if a single means of authorised access (through RIPA 2000) would be practicable. Fresh or consolidating legislation appears likely.